The Quest for Truth and Popsicles: Daniel Pinkwater’s Borgel

The original idea for TBR Stack was to read my way through a bunch of books I’ve allowed to pile up on my shelves (and desk, and floor, and dining table, and kitchen counter, and did I mention the floor…) but for the next two installments I will be revisiting books I have already read—I promise I have a good reason, though! This week’s book, Borgel, is a fantastically silly sci-fi by Daniel Pinkwater, who is, in my opinion (not to mention Cory Doctorow’s) not only one of the best YA writers ever, but also a life-changing force in the life of a reader. I decided to reread Borgel for the first time in more than a decade after reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus two weeks ago. I was captivated by Carter’s line, “You can do anything you like, as long as nobody takes you seriously” which led me back to Pinkwater.

Now if I was to tell you that this book was about a quest for God, you’d probably run in the other direction, right? So it’s a good thing this is actually a time travel adventure about the quest for a sentient popsicle.

Also good? The whole “God” thing is left mercifully undefined, so you can attach any meaning you want to that cherry bomb of a word.

But let me back up a bit. I first read Borgel while I was working at a daycare. For one glorious week I read a Pinkwater a day during the kids’ nap time, which was a delightful exercise in silent laughter, since I wanted them to sleep long enough to allow me to finish a book. It was also perfect because Pinkwater is just “adult” enough that his writing worked as a break from the kids, but also “twisty kid logic” enough that I was able to re-engage with them as they woke up and wanted to play.

Our narrator is Melvin Spellbound. He lives in an apartment in the city with his parents, overachieving brother and sister, and family dog, Fafner. There’s no sense that Melvin is particularly nerdy or outcast, or that his family is mean to him in any way. His possible great-grand-uncle Borgel moves in after his apartment is slated for demolition. No one is quite sure how they’re related to Borgel, but they’re too polite to question him too much about their supposed shared cousins in Cleveland. At one point there is talk of sending him to a retirement community, so for maybe half a page the reader thinks that this is going to be a point of contention—is the elderly man suffering from dementia? Will the family send him away? Will Melvin have to fight for him? Maybe in an ordinary YA book this would become the central conflict, but here in Pinkwater country the usual tropes are tossed out the window.

Instead, Melvin develops a bond with his Uncle Borgel, and while Borgel likes the whole family, it’s clear that Melvin is the one who gets him the most. So naturally a few pages in Borgel invites Melvin on a walk with Fafner which culminates in the elderly man breaking into and hotwiring a car, and peeling out for a road trip. But never fear, this is Borgel’s own car, a Dorbzeldge, which went out of production when the country that manufactures them “went out of business.” Oh and by the way this isn’t so much a road trip as much as a journey through “time-space-and-the-other” and suddenly they’re on an intergalactic highway.

Along the way they meet a plethora of aliens, and Melvin learns to accept each of them without letting his human standards of appearance stand in the way of getting to know new people. Also Fafner can talk now, and isn’t exactly the chipper, friendly dog one might expect. (I tend to see him as a judgey Schnauzer, but perhaps that’s just me.) Over the course of the book, Borgel explains that space is shaped like a bagel, and does his best to describe Starobinski and Zeldovich’s three-torus model of the universe. Time, meanwhile, is like a map of New Jersey—New Jersey specifically, not just any state. He also occasionally tells tales of Old Country, a barren land where the only way to get ahead is to find a squashed skunk to trade for other goods, and young men are initiated into adulthood when their fathers chase them out of the house throwing rocks at their heads. Best of all, he relates absurdist fables about rabbits and eggplants… but more on that in a second.

I’m not sure now whether Borgel was my favorite during this initial Pinkwater binge, but it’s stuck with me the most of all of them. The thing with Pinkwater is that anything can happen over the course of the book, so reading his work is incredibly freeing. There’s also little-to-no discernible moral. You remember how The Phantom Tollbooth, for all that it’s super fun, was chiding you for being bored rather than seeing the wonder of the universe? Or how A Wrinkle in Time was actually about a battle between good and evil? Or how Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, and The Yearling were all about growing up and accepting adult responsibility in the form of wanton animal death?

Pinkwater rejects all of that. If there’s a moral at all here, it’s “try to be open to whatever life throws at you, and maybe don’t worry so much.”

The morality aspect is actively lampooned by Pinkwater, who calls himself “an advocate of nonsense” through a series of absurdist fables. Amusingly enough, this led to a weird controversy a few years ago when one of the fables was repurposed for a state test. In Borgel, the fable involves a footrace between an eggplant and a rabbit. The animals assume that the eggplant has some sort of trick planned, so they bet on it. There’s no trick, it sits at the starting line while the rabbit wins the race (and all the woodland creatures’ money) and then the animals express their anger by eating the eggplant. The moral? Never bet on an eggplant.

Now some gorgeous human out there decided to rewrite this for an 8th Grade state test. They replaced the eggplant with a pineapple, and the rabbit with a hare. When the woodland creatures argue about the race, a moose argues, “The pineapple has some trick up its sleeve”, the pineapple still loses, and the animals still eat it. The test added a new moral: “Pineapples don’t have sleeves”, and thus it was unleashed it on the children of America. They were confused. A few were upset, since there were no right answers, and the test was pretty important. Pinkwater referred to it as “nonsense on top of nonsense” but like all things in our glorious age it became fodder for memedom, in this case a shorthand for people to critique standardized testing. Personally I can’t think of a better way to sum up the absurdity of asking kids to sum up the “correct” answers to questions about creativity than by giving them Pinkwater-based tests.

Possibly best of all, though, is that the book prioritizes silliness and sidetrips over what other authors might consider the main events. When an author embarks on a story, they can go in any direction they want. They can take a character who seems “minor” and spend fifty pages on her; they can dedicate a ton of time and detail to describing landscape; they can write a book that’s literally someone sitting in a chair and thinking really hard about whether or not they should stand up. That’s the thing a lot of writers forget: these are your pages. You can fill them with anything you want. But as you choose where you put the weight and emphasis in the story, you’re teaching your reader how to read you. In Borgel’s case, Pinkwater repeatedly introduces obstacles, and then waves his hand and shows us why they’re no big deal. Melvin’s too young to drive, but at various points he has to, and he does just fine; sometimes Borgel disappears, but that’s OK; Fafner can talk, but he’s not really saying anything profound, and Melvin’s the only one who’s startled by it. Late in the book the group even swings by Hell—which turns out to be a theme park, complete with eager demons hanging out by the entrance and waving tourists into the parking lot. The intergalactic highway itself will be familiar to anyone who’s taken a road trip, complete with roadside stands that serve root beer floats and little else, campsites, and classic diners.

And speaking of narrative weight, maybe a word about diners? Pinkwater came of age in the 1950s, and moved between Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. I tend to think that his love of diners springs from a youth spent in these gastric havens, and is rooted in that perfect fusion of Greek and Jewish food traditions that result in a single, all-American, chrome-plated paradise where you can get a Ruben, spaghetti and meatballs, spanakopita, pancakes at all hours, ridiculous cocktails, a rainbow of milkshakes—hell, you can get them all in the same meal. This is the kind of pure generosity you can only get in a melting pot, and for Pinkwater, those pots were found in the classic diners of his Chicago teenagerdom, and the New York and Jersey greasy spoons he found when he headed east to be an artist. A decade later, having prioritized writing perfect kids’ novels over his really-cool-sounding lithograph art, he included diners as a pivot point in nearly all of his work, a sort of Platonic diner that is always a safe 24-hour port, whether its staffed by surly human waitresses or surly alien waitresses—or, in the case of Borgel, a sweet-yet-sassy space gorilla.

She looked as though she weighed about 450 pounds. Her fur was a light green color—except for which detail, she looked pretty much like any ape at home. She was wearing a button on her uniform that read, I am the Gorilla of Your Dreams. She smiled at us. I liked her. She seemed friendly.

“What’s ‘no-cal, no-nute,’ miss?” Borgel asked.

“No calories, no nutritional content,” the waitress said. “We can feed beings from anywhere. All the dishes we prepare are one hundred-percent cellulose, Fiber. Good for man and beast, and whatever. If you desire, I can give you nutrients on the side.”

“So what is everything made with, wood chips?” Borgel said.

“I guess,” the waitress said. “The maple pancakes are really good, and the okra is real oak.”

“I guess I’ll have that,” Borgel said. “And give me a side of B-complex, some C, E, and trace minerals.”

“One humanoid special,” the waitress said.

Because the big plot point moments are downplayed, but the diner is rendered in loving detail, we get the sense of Pinkwater’s love of food as communion, and diners as a port in a storm. The interlude at the diner also leads directly into the quest that takes up the last third of the book. This quest—for truth, God, Reality, A Sense of Connection to the Universe, however you want to put that—is incidental. They pick up a hitchhiker who wants to find “The Great Popsicle” which is both a large papier-mâché popsicle statue and an actual, sentient, orange Popsicle. The second one is probably a conduit for some much larger force of energy. But again, since it’s ridiculous—an orange popsicle that inspires a religious vision—the reader can put any emotion they want into it.

It was something powerful—as powerful as the Sun, or a whole lot of suns—and it was a popsicle. It was sort of prancing around in the grass, as though it were playing. It was an orange popsicle, maybe a little larger than an ordinary one. It seemed to be alive, and—this is the unbelievable part—it was beautiful. I know that seems idiotic, to say a popsicle can be beautiful, but this one was. It was not that it was much different from thousands of popsicles I’d seen—except for the amazing light that seemed to come from it. It was beautiful in a way nothing I had ever seen or thought of was beautiful.

Are you a hardcore atheist, a faithful orthodox Jew, a casual Sufi, or a lapsed Buddhist? The dancing Popsicle doesn’t care! It doesn’t expect anything from you! It just enjoys dancing improbably and radiating love. By using an absurd (and sticky) image of childhood, Pinkwater creates a space for his readers of whatever age or inclination to experience real wonder.

But, not to belabor the weight thing, he only spends about six pages on the Popsicle before unleashing another wave of silliness. After all, wonder gets stale pretty quick, but silliness is eternal.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place like a mighty popsicle. Come give her reading suggestions on Twitter!

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